Smallest Gestures Mean Something to Mourners

March 12, 2013

“Did you have a relative who died?” the librarian of my high school alma mater asked when she met me today.

“Yes, I did, my brother,” I said.

“I’ve seen a book given in memory of a Wertheimer,” she said.

Then, as I chatted with a student interested in journalism, the librarian hunted for that book. Before I left, she had put it on the counter, a book called a Treasury of Poems. I opened it, and my brother Kevin’s face stared out at me from a laminated copy of his obituary. The donor, a local photo store called the Photo Center, or perhaps the school itself had taped the obituary to the book’s inside cover. Kevin was just 18 years old in that picture, his high school graduation photo. He died six years later on March 1, 1986. I never knew anyone had donated a book to the library at our alma mater, Van Buren High School, just outside of Findlay, Ohio.

Kevin and his Ohio University graduation, 1985. He stuck his cap on my head in jest.

Some of my strongest memories of Kevin are from our years at Van Buren High. But when I first entered the school today, I wasn’t thinking of my brother. I was thinking of what I might say to the school’s journalism class. I was hoping to spark more interest in reporting. I didn’t realize someone’s old small gesture would immediately bring back so many memories of my big brother. Kevin was just two years older than I.

As I left the library, I remembered often seeing Kevin there. He hated reading because he struggled with it, but loved his stint as a library aide. He liked chatting with the librarian as he helped stack books or assisted students. That a photo store donated the book triggered more memories. Kevin was our school yearbook photographer. He and my father built a darkroom in our basement, and I learned a little about the magic of development even as I plugged my nose against the pungent smell.

I don’t know exactly when the photo store contributed the book, but I suspect it was not long after Kevin’s death. My parents moved away from Findlay, Ohio, in 1988. I have been back sporadically mostly to see the family of my brother’s best friend from high school. Today reminded me that there is a little bit of my brother in every place he lived, every place he walked, every place he laughed, every place he flashed that huge smile that teachers and friends alike thought was contagious.

None of my or my brother’s teachers still work at Van Buren, though a few alumni who were there during our time now work at Van Buren. That donor gave my family a gift by buying that book. He helped my brother’s memory live on. The obituary gives a slice of one person’s life to the children or teachers who open that book. They can see my brother’s famous smile. They can read about a young man who had a thirst for adventure and skiing on water and snow. They won’t find a huge list of accomplishments. Kevin was just 23 when he died. But those who see that book at least get a tiny sense that my brother simply loved life.

Maybe a child or teacher who sees that book hugs a loved one a little tighter afterward. Maybe they simply get joy from the poems in that book. It doesn’t matter what they get from the book, but I suspect they can’t help noticing the young man with the smile just inside the cover.

Seeing my brother again in our high school made him so alive again in my mind for a fleeting, precious moment.  Thank you, Photo Center, for your donation. A seemingly tiny gift can make a difference, even 27 years later.


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